National Army Museum’s adoption of new digital practices and processes

This case study by Dr Lauren Vargas forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums. Lauren worked with the National Army Museum in London for a year to spark innovative digital skills development.

Jump to: What was the thinking that got you started? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | How did it come together? | What were the challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment? | What did you learn? | What next? | Further reading

What was the thinking that got you started?

How can we promote and sustain cross-departmental collaboration to support major museum events and exhibitions planning, processes and practices? Specifically, the museum wanted to answer the question: How might we ensure all museum people encourage, and influence, digital skills to flourish across the organisation?

Why was this important to your organisation?

In early 2017, the National Army Museum (NAM) reopened its doors after a major redevelopment involving six years’ planning, five years of fundraising and three years creating the new building. A new Director General, Mr Justin Maciejewski DSO MBE, was appointed in February 2018 to herald a fresh museum strategy and approach to match the new building and purpose designed for the needs of the 21st Century.

The challenge for this project was to figure out the right balance and architecture of in-person and online collaboration, without adding to already hectic workloads and complex timelines. We also needed to prevent slow-moving bureaucracies from impeding those converting to a new way of working, by clearly defining scope, responsibility, and methods for reporting concerns to managers (escalation processes).

The solution was to use collaboration across the site with flexible, or agile, working methods to be proactive in developing, and communicating about, the museum’s major projects. This approach enabled all museum staff to find the most appropriate ways to set priorities and to break project planning processes and practices into small steps.

As part of the One by One project, I worked as a digital fellow with the museum for a year to start the process of innovative digital skills development, with the hope that these new digital competencies, capabilities, and literacies would take hold and help NAM staff prepare for and meet new museum visitor engagement goals.

The practice-based research I initiated and facilitated focused on how NAM could locate digital leadership at all levels and in all areas of the museum by exploring the value of a ‘digital commons’ working group as a place for shared skills development specific to public engagement project management.

What did you do to implement this?

I began the action and research phase with an in-depth listening tour of NAM staff to discover how staff planned projects, made decisions and documented, interpreted, and shared knowledge across the museum.

The museum had a lot of activity, however most was either ‘just in time’ or a reactive response to an internal or external force. What came to the surface during the discovery process was that there were many people working within their own departments without a shared vision, strategy, or planning practices and processes. If major exhibition and event projects were to succeed, NAM senior management recognised the need to create a shared space to address new ways of working. This involved bringing together all areas of the museum to develop exhibitions and events that better reflected the strategic approach of the new director and vocal NAM stakeholders.

The actions we took, alongside research, to address insights gained from staff interviews were designed to challenge NAM to rethink how staff collaborate to plan public engagement activities across an ever-changing digital workplace.

As a means to develop centralised planning, the NAM senior management group decided initially to devise and test new ways of working with their existing public engagement group. This group meets monthly, is made up of 17 participants representing all areas of the museum and is responsible for coordinating permanent and temporary exhibition activity and public events.

During the discovery phase, I observed that meetings focused on a ‘round table’ delivery of status updates for activities happening during the current month and that these meetings averaged three hours. The public engagement group did not have any single place to store and share information. Most teams kept their information on single-use spreadsheets locked away in the central filing system or shared via email between immediate team members.

In addition, the existing NAM digital working group was refreshed with new members and new objectives. Prior to the project, the group met infrequently. The One by One project’s focus on digital skills development gave the chance to reboot the digital working group to:

  • Include a wider cross-section of participants.
  • Educate relevant NAM staff about new digital skills and trends.
  • Review upcoming digital activities to determine areas of overlap and duplication, or opportunities to build on each other’s content.
  • Collaborate and exchange ideas and skills and explore new technology opportunities together.

This internal group was renamed as ‘digital commons’ and its remit was to agree cooperative ways of designing and delivering digital activities. It included some members of the former digital working group with new members added from the marketing and communication, public programmes and membership and development teams. I facilitated monthly digital commons meetings, with a set agenda, from April to August 2019. The initial objective was to review, discuss and revise NAM digital strategy to align with the refreshed NAM strategy and address skills development needs.

“I think lots of people can demonstrate digital leadership. I don’t think it matters whereabouts in the organization you are I think we’ve got to create the right sort of environment for people to feel enabled to do that. And hopefully that is something that’s emerging. One of the things during the project was this idea of a number of different digital champions. And I think that that could be something that offers us a good a good way to progress for the future.

Ian Maine, Assistant Director of Collections and Programme, National Army Museum

The public engagement and digital commons groups didn’t have a shared understanding of core museum planning processes and the meetings lacked structure to allow for discussion and decision-making. Working with participants, a new meeting structure and objectives were agreed. The monthly meetings became a forum for structured discussion, but there were more questions about strategic development and activity that could not be answered in a one-hour meeting without all necessary museum staff and leadership at the table. NAM staff asked: How might the discussions and activity become part of the daily collaboration routine?

The senior management team decided to test the use of the new Intranet and Microsoft Teams, to increase daily, dynamic conversation in these two cross-departmental groups. Microsoft Teams is part of Office 365 and is an organisational space for group chat, online meetings, document collaboration, and web conferencing. NAM was in the process of rolling out Microsoft 365 across the museum, so the decision was made to use tools that were already available or soon would be. However, simply having this technology available did not mean museum staff members were knowledgeable about the best way to use it. While there were new technical competencies to be learned, the capability of this kind of digital internal communication, which didn’t rely on everyone being present at the same time, was unfamiliar to many participants.

To build and strengthen internal communications, I used a method called ‘Working-Out-Loud’ to draw out and facilitate online communication between meetings. This is defined by John Stepper as:

“A way to build relationships that help you achieve a goal, develop a skill, or explore a new topic. Instead of networking to get something, you invest in relationships by making contributions over time, including your work and experiences that you make visible.”

John Stepper, Working Out Loud

These methods were adapted from John Stepper’s programmes originally developed to create stronger in-person relationships.

Microsoft Teams was adapted for NAM as a place to:

  • Discuss and answer questions about digital activities.
  • Discuss and document major exhibition and event planning.
  • Discuss and document management practices and processes.
  • Share internal and external examples of how NAM and other organisations understand, create, use and manage digital activity.

We used the Community Roundtable Engagement Framework to assess how Digital Hub participants engaged with each other.

What happened?

During the initial four months of using Microsoft Teams, public engagement group participants shared 222 posts, reacted to 68 conversation threads, and asked 73 questions of each other. This engagement was a vast improvement from the infrequent in-person and email communication between participants before the intervention and this new behaviour led to increased efficiency and decision-making. Digital Hub participants were initially reluctant to use this space instead of or in-between meetings. Collaboration is not necessarily intuitive; it is a digital skill that needs to be taught. We used prompts such as ‘Work Out Loud Wednesdays’ – to share achievements achieved, plans and obstacles to success – as a way to establish constructive online conversation. We found that participants needed easy and psychologically safe ways and spaces to communicate with each other.

To ensure there were multiple opportunities for people to engage, I posted an Intranet blog post and exercises twice a week during various times of the workday. Most of the exercises were designed to be ‘snackable’ and completed in-between work duties, meetings and email responses. The Work-Out-Loud prompts were often aligned with the topics, practices, and processes being discussed as part of public engagement project planning and development of the digital strategy within the digital commons group.

These exercises helped build a common language and space for NAM staff to act and reflect on who is responsible, accountable, and needed to be consulted and informed of all museum activity, digital development and opportunities. Not all public engagement and digital commons participants completed these exercises, but many found watching others complete the exercises a useful way to glean new information and model communication and collaboration to develop confidence for future participation.

How did it come together?

The first tests of the new way of working took place while the Indian Memorial Room gallery was redesigned and during the planning of the inaugural Chelsea History Festival. While the museum had completed gallery updates and planned multi-site events in the past, 2019 was the first time this work was collectively and proactively developed by a cross-departmental team of museum staff at all levels of the organisation.

“I’ve definitely gained more confidence both in digital and spoken competencies. I would say it’s given me the confidence to talk about my work. I think I’ve become a bit quicker at picking things up in terms of digital skills, of being able to interpret a digital programme, and what I need to do rather than looking at digital tools and being afraid of all the different buttons or whatever. But I think that’s also a reflection on what tools you’ve chosen to test, because I found them very easy to use, quick to pick up, and reflective of processes that I’m doing anyway. So it has built on the familiar.”

Emma Harper, former Head of Exhibitions at the National Army Museum and now Curator at Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service

Using Leankit to track and plan a project

Chelsea History Festival involved NAM and two outside organisations. The multi-site group, chaired by an external festival director, met frequently to brainstorm and work out pressing issues. NAM ran a cross-departmental team and primarily coordinated museum specific activity, using conversation threads in Microsoft Teams, and a project planning tool called Leankit to make decisions. Leankit is a subscription-based system and it acted as the definitive source for all project activity during the planning of the festival.

Rather than separate groups and individuals keeping separate calendars or spreadsheets of activity, the group listed and tracked all physical and digital museum activity related to the festival on Leankit.

This ‘agile’ working method allows activity to be divided into small tasks and assessed and readjusted as the project progresses. The Leankit board was shared on relevant Microsoft Teams channels and it was open to NAM senior management team and heads of department to view, edit, add content, comment or ask questions about specific activity or work progress status. In this way, NAM staff could easily identify where there were gaps of activity or questions and focus on these areas to ensure the best possible product and outcome.

The conversation threads on Microsoft Teams and Leankit also offered a window into how planning and decision-making did, or didn’t, happen across the museum. This acted as a valuable test and set of lessons learned for other cross-departmental project planning groups and members of the senior management team.

What were the challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment?

The Indian Army Memorial Room redesign and the Chelsea History Festival examples led not only to lessons learned about collaboration, but also to beneficial observations about and recommendations for how all of the museum’s major exhibition and event planning might improve.

As NAM staff worked towards the two major projects, they identified the need to make explicit their project planning processes to achieve the following:

  • Prevent random meetings: We must stop reactive and status-update only meetings. How might we use internal digital channels to be proactive in sharing information and practise active listening, so that we might structure meetings to accomplish high value activity such as brainstorming and decision-making?
  • Define accountability and success: We must identify who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed for all tasks and documents. We must also decide what we define as ‘done’ and what determines ‘success’ for all major objectives. How might we make it easier for all museum staff to know who is doing what, where, when, why and how?
  • Break activity sharing into smaller units and cultivate mindful ‘collaboration rituals’: We must establish a useful rhythm of information-sharing and decision-making. How might we replace museum planning meetings with effective ways to accomplish tasks in a short, defined block (sprint-planning) and review this process as it takes place and once it is complete.
  • Develop a dynamic calendar and resources: We must streamline our exhibition and event planning and production. How might we produce more valuable experiences by centralising all key information like dates, owners, relevant digital assets and marketing or communication campaigns, as well as any information required for reporting?

The NAM leadership and staff made ‘agile’ project planning improvements and continue to enhance their exhibition and event practices and processes with resources that were already available within the museum’s digital infrastructure or were free to use. For example, all exhibition and event brainstorming exercises and documentation exist as an open OneNote Notebook that may be edited or added to by relevant participants. This is another Microsoft application that can be used to gather information and collaborate on tasks and projects. All real, relevant, and insightful exhibition and event planning discussion takes place on Microsoft Teams, and various conversations referencing specific tasks or actions directly link to the activity on Leankit.

Ideally, NAM staff will continue to learn and regularly use the resources developed for major project planning – and this means integrating practices and processes, supported by digital tools, into the daily routine. The techniques for collaboration and planning developed as part of the One by One project created a positive dynamic with resources and activities easily accessible, not adding to already busy schedules, and modelled either by me or by other key members of NAM staff and management.

The public engagement and digital commons participants at NAM identified that there was no perfect time to improve major project planning or learn new digital skills to enhance museum operations. The best way to adapt and adopt new ways of working is to actively practise and trial these methods. Working towards a shared goal, such as the Chelsea History Festival, was the ideal time for staff to trial and improve practices and processes. The process gave them the time and space to reflect on which ‘default’ behaviours and methods needed to give way to news ways of working.

What did you learn?

While a member of senior management initiated the public engagement activity, this new way of working highlighted that leaders are found at all levels and in all areas of the organisation.

During project planning, actions need to be taken and decisions made and most of these activities do not require senior management sign-off. Rather, these activities need knowledgeable people to step-up, act, and pass the baton to the next person or group responsible for the next action in the process. The use of open and transparent collaboration tools and conversations meant the museum was able to locate leadership at all levels of the organisation and at all stages of the major project planning processes.

NAM staff discovered you do not always need to wait to be told what to do or how to act. When working collaboratively, public engagement and digital commons participants had a better understanding of how decisions were being made and how digital activity in the museum was understood and being created, used and managed. This meant they knew when gaps needed to be filled or how to find to find the right person with the right skills to answer the right question at the right time. During the Chelsea History Festival, a cross-departmental team could accomplish specific activities and goals while keeping leadership and general staff informed at every stage.

The museum was also able to use the digital commons group to cultivate fresh digital skills and a CALM approach to digital leadership (see ‘Further reading’ below) to lay the groundwork for a more open and balanced workplace. Collaboration is a personal and digital skill to be learned. Communicating in an online forum is not implicitly understood, despite the amount of social media a person may engage with in their personal lives. Collaboration is not achieved if the burden of update and action is taken on by a few. When all members of the team are actively engaged, asking questions, sharing information, validating and praising each other for victories big and small, and exploring and learning from other organisations, the result is a positive team dynamic and improved outputs and outcomes.

What next?

The new ways of working actively practised in the planning and execution of the Chelsea History Festival were a success and resulted in over 10,000 visitors at 40 events across five days and three sites. Of these visitors, 27% were first-time visitors to all three sites. Building on this, NAM staff acknowledged that the planning process should have started earlier to allow for more cohesive collaboration and high-impact programming and sponsorship. The cross-departmental team also found that while the new ways of working improved what was accomplished and how, NAM staff underestimated the required time to understand agile and Work-Out-Loud methods before actively practising them.

Further reading

CALM approach

The One by One project, and specifically the Chelsea History Festival element of it, demonstrated how the museum took a CALM approach to digital leadership, meaning leaders and teams developed a project planning environment that is:

  • C – Collaborative: engaging openly and transparently with other staff to plan and develop (internal or external) work products.
  • A – Anticipatory: planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.
  • L – Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership: locating and enabling leaders at all levels whilst developing a shared sense of decision-making and accountability.
  • M – Mindful: making time and space to reflect on information and decisions.

A collaborative environment was established using Microsoft Teams and Leankit instead of email messaging, which is not open or transparent to all project stakeholders and participants. NAM staff members were encouraged to begin their days by opening Microsoft Teams and Leankit and skim, respond, and add to conversations.

An agile environment was established by:

  • Listing all activity on Leankit and indicating important dates.
  • Stating who was responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for all listed activity.
  • Defining success.
  • Explicitly identifying activity as in-progress, ready for test or review, and completed.
  • Having consistent meetings with the cross-departmental team and stakeholders to plan and review activity.

The cross-departmental group let go of command-and-control leadership and embraced collective leadership by encouraging NAM staff to lead at various stages of the project. Generally, NAM staff knew what decisions needed to be made and who was responsible for acting at any given time. There wasn’t exclusive ‘top-down’ communication. instead, most information was being shared openly in meetings, Microsoft Teams and Leankit.

A mindful environment was established as we started the project by reviewing what had been done in the past and discussing what the cross-departmental team needed to know to inform the present and help plan for future activity. This environment was reinforced by consistently reviewing meeting notes and online conversation for action items, to prevent any tasks or decisions from being overlooked. At the end of both the Indian Army Memorial Room update and the Chelsea History Festival, the cross-departmental team and stakeholders convened for an in-depth retrospective to discuss what went well, what to stop doing, improve or continue for similar projects in the future.